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A running renaissance in Chicago: Diverse run clubs emerge and expand in the city as marathon approaches


While dozens of runners from across the city gather at the steps of a brewery in the Lower West Side of Chicago, Eliberto Rivera, 72, stands next to his son, Enrique Rivera, 39, talking to some of the seasoned runners and welcoming new ones.

Every Wednesday, father and son join the Venados running club that the two once spearheaded even though they no longer run. Both are recovering from setbacks caused by COVID-19 and injuries, they said. But running is more than a sport for them.

“Running is the connection to my dad. It’s very personal; I have very old memories of wearing his marathon shirts, putting on his running shoes and cheering at his races,” Enrique said. “It means family.”

That running family has grown and expanded through the city as new runners joined the existing run clubs and more crews emerged in the last year in different neighborhoods, post-pandemic limitations, they said. Beyond solely catering to elite or competitive runners, the newfound clubs welcome all paces, encouraging people to learn about the sport, and promote health and wellness and the building of community as the Chicago Marathon approaches.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Enrique developed a love for the sport and for the club that his father helped to establish in 1981 in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

Venados, which means deer in Spanish, was formed in the early ’80s when a group of friends from the neighborhood decided to start running together to support each other in a space where there were few Latinos, recalled Eliberto, who has ran nearly 50 marathons.

At the time there were few running crews, and in most races “you could count the Black and Latino runners,” Eliberto said in Spanish. “It makes (me) so happy to see how much it has grown — to see so many young people here — and it’s fulfilling to know that I was one of the first ones.”

Though the group stopped meeting in the mid-’90s after some members moved away or stopped running, Enrique was motivated to reestablish the crew in 2005 after mentioning the idea to his father and seeing his excitement.

The group was initially made up of only friends and family who would meet at Enrique’s home. Now it gathers more than 100 runners — some from other clubs, different paces, places and backgrounds — every Wednesday night at Lo Rez Brewing and Taproom, on South Carpenter Street in Pilsen, to run 3 or 5 miles.

Randall Shaw, 41, has been running for two decades but began to join different crews, including Venados, just this summer, he said. He runs with a different group almost every day and hosts his own Track Club every Thursday at 6 a.m. at Dunbar Park Track.

“The real boom in Chicago’s running community has been in the last couple of years because of the pandemic; when gyms shut down, people knew that they could still go outside and run,” Shaw said. “But also, the whole idea of a running group came from people’s need for a community and togetherness.”

The newfound clubs, Shaw said, are changing the narrative by creating spaces where people can connect and unite through the sport regardless of their pace, age or ethnic background.

“I’ve always struggled with feeling like I don’t belong. That’s one of the things I like about running; it’s a solo sport and it’s normal to do it alone. (But) Chicago’s running community has been so awesome lately and I finally feel like I’m truly part of something bigger than myself,” Shaw wrote as a caption of a recent photo that he shared of runners from different clubs together at the lakefront during their marathon training.

While many groups have been formed out of proximity, other groups are culturally based.

Earlier this summer Sany Nguyên finally realized her longtime vision of fostering and developing an Asian American running community by establishing Family Style Run Club.

Nguyên, who began running as a way of healing, said she quickly realized though there were spaces fostering the sport, “they were not understanding of my journey and I couldn’t see anybody like me.”

Family Style Run Club focuses on creating spaces for Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, athletes by inviting people to run in predominantly Asian neighborhoods, taking a route that leads to a historic building or monument that highlights the Asian footprint in Chicago, or running to a restaurant to support Asian business owners.

Since its inception, Family Style Run Club has also been supported by members of other running clubs, Nguyên said. Members of each club attend each other’s running events and socials every week as they foster their shared goal of uplifting their community through running.

“We call them our extended family,” she added.

That extended family includes Peace Runners 773, a crew founded by Jack Hoffman on June 19, 2020, as a way to commemorate Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the end of slavery in the United States.

Hoffman said he was inspired to create the group after noticing the “lack of movement” while running through Garfield Park and other West Side neighborhoods. He also acknowledged how the lack of spaces that encourage Black people to exercise was affecting his own family and friends.

“My mom is my biggest inspiration. She walks with the walking club and has lost about 40 pounds. Even since she started to be more active, she went from 13 to 3 medications,” Hoffman said.

But the club has gone beyond just fostering a space for those in his community to learn the art of running, he said. Members have connected with other clubs in other neighborhoods with the intention to grow and expand the movement.

“The running clubs are helping to connect the city,” Hoffman said, “It’s contagious right now, and the running movement is also really helping people to bridge a gap as far as culture and race.”

GRC Run Club was designed to foster health and community in June 2021 as an extension of the Grocery Run Club not-for-profit, which was founded to supply fresh produce and other necessities to underserved Chicago neighborhoods in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

The founders, Lucy Angel Camarena and Jorge Saldarriaga,said that their vision when creating the running club was to invite diverse runners to run together in different neighborhoods while also supporting local businesses.

“We are not a run club that is fixed in one neighborhood, like our not-for-profit. We go wherever the need is or wherever they want it,” Camarena said.

The club, which has doubled in size since its first runs last year, now meets two times a month and brings together members of other crews across the city — the same clubs led by Black and brown folks that inspired them, Saldarriaga said. In October, Saldarriaga will be running his first Chicago marathon.

“When we had this opportunity to create a run club, it meant that we were taking up space in places where society does not expect us to take up space,” he said. “There’s almost like a running renaissance going on right now where people are coming out of COVID and they’re seeing people out there taking care of their mental and physical health and they are feeling inspired.”

Their vision of promoting wellness and collaborating with other running groups has been strengthened after becoming the first Latinx-led running club in the U.S. sponsored by Lululemon in July. It means that the group will be provided with resources to host more runs, collaborate with other groups, support small business and equip their runners with the gear that will allow them to perform better, Camarena said.

Through the summer, Saldarriaga took part in runs hosted by Venados and Peace Runners 773, among others, as he trains for the marathon.

On a recent Saturday, he ran alongside David Ruiz, founder of Tortugas, a crew that has been meeting every Sunday in Harrison Park in Pilsen since summer 2021.

The two have different paces but share the common goal of running their first-ever marathon. Ruiz and Saldarriaga said they’ve found the motivation and support they’ve needed to keep up with training in each other, thanks to the running community the two have helped create.

Tortugas’ motto: “Family, Friends, Culture, and Support first! The run comes after,” has been key to attracting people from all over the neighborhood, especially encouraging people who have been intimated by the sport, said Jose Viramontes, co-lead of the club.

The name, which means Turtles, is the same name Ruiz’s mother would use when she and her sisters would partake in races in their younger years, he said.

“We intend to create general wealth and that starts by promoting health in our communities,” Viramontes said.

Ruby Negrete, a legacy Venados runner and now the captain of the club along with her mother, shared that same vision.

Negrete was introduced to running when she was 15 years old thanks to her mother, a longtime member of Venados. The Venados family inspired her to live a healthy lifestyle and pushed her to promote camaraderie and support for one another, Negrete said.

“These are people who have my best interest at heart and who want to see me succeed,” Negrete said. Running, she said, is a metaphor for life: “You must keep going, and regardless of the pace it takes, we have to support each other to reach the end.”

Now she strides to continue to do the same for others as the running family grows.

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